The Incarnational Art of Van Morrison

VanMorrison_collage

Note: No one will mistake Van Morrison as a “prog” rocker, but everyone acknowledges he is one of the most important popular musicians of the past fifty years. He has long been one of my five or six favorite musicians, ever since I first heard his music back in the summer of 1991. I wrote the following article in 2002 for Saint Austin Review, and since it has never been available online, I’ve decided to foist it onto Progarchy readers. I’ve made a couple of minor corrections, but otherwise it is unchanged and so it is, of course, somewhat dated. — Carl E. Olson

Ask most people (at least here in America) if they’ve heard of Van Morrison, and they will likely mention “Brown Eyed Girl,” the late 60s hit with a catchy chorus of sha-la-la-la-la-la-la’s. Although it’s a fine pop song, there is, fortunately, far more to Van Morrison than “Brown Eye Girl.” Since 1968 and the release of his classic album Astral Weeks, Morrison has created an impressive body of popular music that defies categorization. Using elements of folk, rock, jazz, soul, R&B, traditional Irish music, and even country music, the Belfast Cowboy molds songs that are earthly, emotional, spiritual, and, at times, transcendent.

Legendary for his difficult personality and his dislike for the press, Morrison has often sent confusing signals about his religious affections. Yet his finest work can rightly be called incarnational. This is not to say it is strictly “Christian,” but that it is rooted in reality (uncommon in much pop and rock music) and seeks to incarnate spiritual truth and meaning in concrete forms, themes, images, and narratives. Morrison is not interested in proselytizing, creating propaganda, or lecturing, flaws common in “contemporary Christian music” (mostly evangelical Protestant) and in the music of rock artists attempting serious statements about ecology, politics, and social ills. Such ends irritate Morrison, who seems to appreciate the power and limits of popular music.  Once asked about fans looking to musicians for political guidance, he responded with irritation, “Why do people expect us to solve the world’s problems? It’s absurd. I mean, if politicians can’t do it, how . . . . can musicians?”

Although he has produced some mediocre albums and has occasionally alienated his fans and the press, Morrison has maintained a remarkably consistent artistic vision. His music is worth considering, I believe, for several reasons. As music, apart from message and lyrical themes, most of it is very good. Morrison’s mastery of styles and his ability to mesh seemingly divergent musical forms is impressive. The best of these stylistic marriages have a timeless quality, conveying a spiritual longing that is honest, vulnerable, and often moving. This mixture of earthy, cerebral, and spiritual is uniquely its own, providing Catholic musicians who work in popular music much to consider and appreciate.

The Childlike Vision

Born in Belfast in 1945, Morrison had an ordinary boyhood, with the notable exception of his father’s passion for American jazz, R&B, and early rock and roll. He spent hours listening to the records of legendary artists such as Jelly Roll Morton, Little Richard, and various blues singers. By the age of fifteen he was playing full-time in a skiffle band, eventually putting together the group Them in the early 60s. After releasing the hits “Here Comes the Night” and “Gloria,” Morrison went solo and eventually landed in New York City. Although “Brown Eyed Girl” was soon a hit, Morrison was miserable. Feeling trapped in his recording contract and misunderstood by everyone around him, he still managed to record Astral Weeks in two days – this despite not knowing the session musicians and (according to those musicians) not communicating with them.

Although it produced no hits and didn’t sell well, Astral Weeks soon became legendary within musical circles. The twenty-two year old Morrison had created a song cycle that was timeless, poignant, and spiritual, combining folk, rock, and jazz in open-ended compositions. Multi-layered and elusive, the lyrics describe people and places in Belfast, impressionistic sketches imbued with a mystical longing free of nostalgia and sentimentality. The songs are loosely structured around Morrison’s emotive vocals, the singer wrapping his voice around keenly detailed lyrics. In “Beside You”, he describes the approaching evening with minimalist precision, “Just before the Sunday six-bells chime, six-bells chime/And all the dogs are barkin’.” He then follows a mysterious woman as she moves down the roads and “way across the country”:

Past the brazen footsteps of the silence easy
You breathe in you breathe out you breathe in you breathe out . .  .
And you’re high on your high-flyin’ cloud
Wrapped up in your magic shroud as ecstasy surrounds you

“Sweet Thing,” a more obvious love song, is also filled with images of walking the countryside, seeking and experiencing a timeless wonder:

And I will stroll the merry way
And jump the hedges first
And I will drink the clear . . .
Against tomorrow’s sky
And I will never grow so old again
And I will walk and talk
In gardens all wet with rain

These images mesh with a more exuberant, even ecstatic, music in “The Way Young Lovers Do,” in which cascading horns run alongside Morrison’s elastic voice:

We strolled through fields all wet with rain
And back along the lane again
There in the sunshine
In the sweet summertime
The way that young lovers do

In Astral Weeks Morrison found and revealed his mature artistic vision, one that he has explored ever since. Some critics, perhaps cynical about Morrison’s difficult personality and reticent nature, claim that Morrison has spent thirty years trying to recapture and re-record Astral Weeks. This is unfair and incorrect. Most musicians would be happy to make one album as good as Astral Weeks; Morrison has made several that are its equal. His continual return to certain themes – longing for human and divine love, spiritual seeking, moments with “a childlike vision leaping into view”– reveal how central they are to who he is as an artist. Great artists often spend their entire lives exploring one or two ideas. This is essentially what Morrison has done. Two central themes of his work are the intersection between the ordinary and the supernatural, and the relationship between human and divine love.

When Time and Place Meet Eternity

The connection between particular places and spiritual awakening is at the heart of Morrison’s work, an incarnational crossroads that even hints at the sacramental. As a young boy Morrison experienced moments of “timelessness” in which he felt a perfect sense of peacefulness and beauty. This apparently happened more than once while walking down Cyprus Avenue, a Belfast street that takes center stage in Astral Weeks and reappears in later albums. (Of his childhood in Belfast, Morrison has said, “You see, in my head I never really left that. Or in my soul I never left it. Basically, I’m still there.”) Morrison had similar experiences while listening to some of his father’s jazz and blues records, an overwhelming sense of being transported outside of time.

The meeting of the ordinary and the extraordinary in a particular place is captured in “It Stoned Me,” the opening cut from Moondance, the brilliant follow-up to Astral Weeks. The song is about Morrison and a friend fishing as young boys. While they are walking, they are caught in a summer rain shower:

Hands are full of a fishin’ rod
And the tackle on our backs
We just stood there gettin’ wet
With our backs against the fence

There is nothing unusual in the scene: two boys, fishing, rain. It’s rather quaint and bucolic. But when Morrison sings the bridge, it is with a plaintive quality which hints that something more is going on: “Oh, the water/Oh, the water/Oh, the water/Hope it don’t rain all day.” This “something” is revealed, at least partially, in the chorus:

And it stoned me to my soul
Stoned me just like Jelly Roll . . .
And it stoned me to my soul
Stoned me just like goin’ home

This timelessness and spiritual ecstasy is first associated with a specific place and event, then compared to hearing the music of Jelly Roll Morton, and then likened to “goin’ home,” either a longing for the past home or a future home – or perhaps both. Morrison’s use of “stoned,” a term usually associated with drugs, is purposeful. Morrison has a special scorn for those who attempt to achieve some higher plane or insight by using drugs. He has stated that from an early age he was getting “stoned” off of nature, needing no chemicals to get “high.”

“Into the Mystic,” also on Moondance, captures the mysterious relationship between concrete place and transcendence – here described as “the mystic”:

We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic
Hark, now hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic

Nearly twenty years after Moondance, Morrison wrote another song connecting the eternal with the temporal. “When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God?”, from the album Avalon Sunset, is a moving contemplation of the relationship between nature, art, and the desire to “live in God.” Although some Christians saw Avalon Sunset as Morrison’s public profession of Christian faith, this seems unlikely. Morrison has stated that he is a Christian, but he admits his involvement in Scientology, transcendental meditation, and assorted New Age practices. However, the Christian themes in Avalon Sunset are striking, and the album contains one of Morrison’s few direct references to Jesus Christ, found in “Whenever God Shines His Light On Me,” an upbeat duet with Cliff Richards. Whether or not Morrison is Christian, or just a masterful syncretist, the lyrics of “When Will I Ever Learn To Live In God?”, set to a lovely melody, are incarnational:

Standing on the beach at sunset all the boats
All the boats keep moving slow
In the glory of the flashing light in the evenings glow

When will I ever learn to live in God?
When will I ever learn?
He gives me everything I need and more
When will I ever learn?

You brought it to my attention everything that was made in God
Down through centuries of great writings and paintings
Everything lives in God
Seen through architecture of great cathedrals
Down through the history of time
Is and was in the beginning and evermore shall be

Some listeners have wondered if Morrison eschews a form of pantheism in this and other songs, but I think the evidence says otherwise. In reality, Morrison’s views seem to be more panentheistic, making a distinction between God and His creation, but recognizing that He is intimately involved in, and revealed through, creation. Morrison rarely, if ever, sings or talks as though he is part of “the One,” but presents the One as separate from humanity and creation. This distinction is, of course, vital in discussing the incarnational nature of art. If there is no actual, ontological dissimilitude between the Creator and the created, there can be no incarnational activity, no “enfleshing” of the supernatural.

Human and Divine Love

Morrison has written some excellent love songs. They succeed because they are about mature love, not infatuation or one night stands. Just as important, the lover is specific and concrete, and the human love(r) reflects and channels the divine love(r). In “Crazy Love,” from Moondance, Morrison sings about the specific qualities of his lady, including her good spirits: “She’s got a fine sense of humor when I’m feeling low down….” This love not only encourages the singer, but transforms him on a deeper level: “Yes it makes me righteous, yes it makes me feel whole/Yes it makes me mellow down in to my soul”

Embracing true love and rejecting false love leads to the One who is Love. This is a theme with rich roots in Christian theology and art, bringing to mind names such as St. Augustine, Dante, T.S. Eliot, Charles Williams, and Pope John Paul II. In some of Morrison’s love songs, it is unclear whether he is singing to the human lover, or the Divine Lover – or both at once. This measured blurring is apparent in “If I Ever Needed Someone” from His Band and the Street Choir:

Lord, if I ever needed someone
I need, You . . .
To see me through the daytime
And through the long, lonely night
To lead me through the darkness
And on into the light

In “Northern Muse,” from Beautiful Vision, the woman embodies spiritual sustenance and life, similar to Dante’s Beatrice:

She lifts me up
Fill my cup
When I’m tired and weary, Lord
And she keeps the flame
And she give me hope
[To] carry on

Not surprisingly, Avalon Sunset contains an open declaration of the connection between the temporal and the eternal natures of love. In one of Morrison’s most popular ballads, “Have I Told You Lately?”, the singer reveals that the two lovers share in a higher love, and such a gift is the cause of thanksgiving:

There’s a love that’s divine
And it’s yours and it’s mine
Like the sun at the end of the day
We should give thanks and pray to the One

The most complete articulation of Morrison’s incarnational understanding of place, time, spirituality, and love are found, I believe, in “In The Garden,” from No Guru, No Method, No Teacher. Morrison and those who played on the session have pointed to this remarkable song as a near perfect distillation of his quest as a musician and spiritual seeker. Singing over a rhapsodic piano line, the singer sets the scene: “The streets are always wet with rain/After a summer shower when I saw you standin’/In the garden in the garden wet with rain.” The singer and his lover sit in the garden, silent and full of “great sadness,” for she is going away. There is an interlude, and when the singer reenters, his voice is heightened; his lover has returned, transformed, “a creature all in rapture” who now “had the key to your soul.” She has taken on an otherworldly character, described with rising wonder:

The olden summer breeze was blowin’ on your face
The light of God was shinin’ on your countenance divine
And you were a violet colour as you
Sat beside your father and your mother in the garden

The summer breeze was blowin’ on your face
Within your violet you treasure your summery words
And as the shiver from my neck down to my spine
Ignited me in daylight and nature in the garden

And then a hush falls upon the lovers. In an awed whisper, the singer witnesses her enter into spiritual ecstasy:

And you went into a trance
Your childlike vision became so fine
And we heard the bells inside the church
We loved so much
And felt the presence of the youth of
Eternal summers in the garden

The lovers embrace in a seemingly platonic recognition of their experience, of having been in the presence of God. Here the language is as Christian as anything Morrison has written:  “And as it touched your cheeks so lightly/Born again you were and blushed and we touched each other lightly/ And we felt the presence of the Christ.” The singer then responds to what he has witnessed, affirming his desire to enter into the same mystery:

And I turned to you and I said . . .
No Guru, no method, no teacher
Just you and I and nature
And the Father and the
Son and the Holy Ghost
In the garden wet with rain
No Guru, no method, no teacher
Just you and I and nature and the Holy Ghost.”

The Beauty of the Days Gone By

In the spring 2002 Morrison released Down The Road, probably his best work in a decade. The dark mood evident in his work in the 90s has lifted and there is a renewed sense of hope. In the album’s most moving cut, “The Beauty of the Days Gone By,” Morrison again revisits the places that transport him outside of time and self:

I’ll sing it from the mountain top
Down to the valley down below
Because my cup doth overflow
With the beauty of the days gone by

The mountain glen
Where we used to roam
The gardens there
By the railroad track
Oh my memory it does not lie
Of the beauty of the days gone by

Great art incarnates truth, gives shape to beauty, and joins inner longing with outer form. Van Morrison, despite his flaws and ambiguities, has done this many times over the years, providing Christians and non-Christians alike a glimpse into “the childlike vision.”

About carleolson

I am a Catholic, husband, father, author, editor, designer, painter, book junkie, music nut, and a neo-paleo-conservative papist.

Posted on May 11, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Great essay, Carl! Lots of new insights I wasn’t aware of. My favorite run of Van’s albums is from “Sense of Wonder” through “Hymns to the Silence”. I have a special fondness for “No Guru” and “Poetic Champions Compose”. Several years ago, I decided to listen to all of his albums from The Best of Them through Too Long In Exile. It took me more than a month, and my wife was thoroughly sick of him by the time I was done. But it made me realize what an astounding body of work he has produced.

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    • Thanks! I like that idea of playing through all of his albums. That works out to some 500 and close to two full days of music, playing 24/7. Whew!

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  2. Carl, that’s a wonderful piece of writing. It has certainly made me think of my own spirituality and relationship with ‘The One’. Thank you
    Ian

    Like

  3. Gene McNeally

    Carl, Van’s a legend and your article is still relevant in an age of cheap celebrity. Who would have ever predicted that the music of the new millenium would be dominated by all those talentless winners of karaoke contests like Idol, the Voice etc.

    Like

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